As the looming specter of a Trump presidency casts its long shadow over the new year, thrillers that hinge on secret government conspiracies are more apt than ever, and “Homecoming,” the first scripted podcast from Gimlet Media, is just the tonic for those who wish to bask in unpatriotic feelings (without doing anything drastic like moving to Canada.)
Scripted podcasts, while not the medium’s bread and butter, represent a significant sub-set of the trend that saved radio. The most prominent of which is “Welcome to Night Vale,” a bi-monthly cult hit that traverses all sorts of conspiracy theories and heightened realities. While one might wish the reality in “Homecoming” were heightened, the shocks in this tense mystery are far too plausible for comfort, especially in the brave new world of 2017.
Boasting a roster of A-list talent that includes Catherine Keener, Oscar Isaac, David Schwimmer, David Cross, and Amy Sedaris, and a creative team with credits from NPR and McSweeney’s, “Homecoming” represents a shift for podcasts from an (albeit quite formidable) niche of the entertainment industry to a magnet for Hollywood talent and an incubator for crossover projects. (In December, Deadline announced that “Mr. Robot” creator Sam Esmail had signed on to develop “Homecoming” as a TV series.)
The industry change makes sense: It is easy to attract star talent if you only need them to record audio for one day, and even easier if the content is as compelling as “Homecoming.”
The story follows Heidi (Catherine Keener), a therapist working at a secret government facility with recently-returned U.S. soldiers, under the auspices of helping them adjust to civilian life. In early sessions with a patient named Walter Cruz (Oscar Isaac), which she records, Heidi is affable and empathetic, bending the rules a bit in order to establish a rapport with Walter. Before reading him the mandatory welcome statement, she confides, “I’m gonna warn you, it’s very, very boring.” They both laugh.
When the show jumps forward four years, Heidi is waitressing in a bustling diner. She sounds decidedly less sure of herself, her voice distant and trepidatious when an investigator comes around asking about her time at The Homecoming Initiative. Keener — beloved for her signature gravelly tenor — is perfectly suited for the role, masterfully indicating the time jumps with different inflections.
She is confident in sessions, but hurried and off balance in phone calls with her boss, Colin Belfast (David Schwimmer), who is always jetting somewhere, forgetting why he called, and admonishing Heidi for some seemingly innocuous action. The calls are fuzzy with background noise, putting Heidi on the defensive even as she struggles to hear. As Colin pushes Heidi for answers, she sputters half-hearted protests, and the power dynamic between them is crystal clear, even if the audio isn’t.
In six 20-minute episodes, “Homecoming” raises more questions than it answers. Rather than trifle with cliffhangers, “Homecoming” prefers to hum along in a perpetual state of nail-biting, each small scene dangling its own moral quandaries into the mix. No time is wasted on exposition unless it spills out naturally during conversation. “Homecoming” keeps the listener on high alert — ears perked and heart racing.
In a behind-the-scenes interview after the first episode, creator Eli Horowitz references a popular mystery radio play from 1943, “Sorry, Wrong Number” as inspiration. The radio play was turned into an eponymous film starring Barbara Stanwyck and Burt Lancaster, and made waves for its lack of narration — very rare for radio drama at the time. The plot unfolds solely through a series of phone calls the invalid protagonist makes to different operators from her bed as she becomes increasingly concerned about a menacing presence.
Borrowing from “Sorry, Wrong Number,” Horowitz puts the phone call to good use structurally, but also finds other ways to justify the recorded audio in the story; by having Heidi record her sessions, or having the patients’ rooms monitored. With these acknowledgments, the act of recording need not be explicitly mentioned in every scene, such as in the diner. But a voyeuristic presence is always felt, making the listeners complicit in Heidi’s paranoia about being watched or followed — a fear which turns out to be legitimate.
Thanks to its innovative audio techniques and nuanced voice acting, “Homecoming” manages to straddle the line between shocking thriller and believable conspiracy. As the plot unravels and the players’ true motivations come into focus, there are well-earned gasps, but the story does not stray too far from the realm of the believable. In an age of government mistrust, pharmaceutical companies’ greed, and disappearing mental health services for veterans, the bleak reality of “Homecoming” is not so far from our own. It’s a 2017 story, by way of 1943.